It was a crisp, clear morning in Washington, D.C., as 48 veterans of the Vietnam War and their accompanying family members and friends filed into the stately rotunda of the National Archives Museum, Nov. 10, 2017. They quietly and reflectively took their places alongside America’s sacred founding documents, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and then were greeted by fellow Vietnam veteran David S. Ferriero, the Archivist of the United States, who had several opening remarks—among them, most notably, were two simple yet utterly poignant words: “Welcome home.”
The sight of a large group of war veterans is not uncommon in the nation’s capital in recent years due in large part to the efforts of the Honor Flight Network, a national nonprofit organization. In 2016 alone, Honor Flight brought more than 20,000 veterans of World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War to Washington to visit and reflect at their memorials. But this stop at the Archives was a one-time addition and an unforgettable opportunity for these Vietnam veterans, whose trip was made possible by Utah Honor Flight and a sponsorship by Subaru Corporation and Nate Wade Subaru in Salt Lake City.
In an overwhelming gesture of gratitude for their service during the Vietnam War, they would become the very first visitors to the National Archives’ new “Remembering Vietnam” exhibit on its opening day. It seemed only fitting, given that those who served in the long, controversial and brutal conflict are the ones who still “remember” the war every day. The exhibit is an invitation for the entire nation to remember and honor the sacrifices of those who gave so much and often returned home only to be met with insults and sneers.
“Our history comes alive through our records,” Ferriero told the veterans, adding that each item in the Archives’ carefully curated new exhibit is a representation of a greater story—one that until now has not widely been told. Even for Ferriero, who served as a hospital corpsman assigned to First Marine Division and later aboard USS Sanctuary (AH-17), the exhibit, which contains both well-known and newly discovered documents, “filled in some of the gaps” of his own knowledge about America’s involvement in Vietnam.
It’s a subject that is still polarizing—and equally confusing—for many Americans, even today, half a century after the war. But “Remembering Vietnam” aims to change that narrative by encouraging a multigenerational audience to learn an unbiased history of the war based on the facts presented in more than 80 original records, many of which have never before been on display. It’s designed to inspire visitors of all ages and backgrounds to reflect on what they saw and read, formulate their own opinions and answer three critical questions: “Why did the U.S. get involved?” “Why did the war last so long?” and “Why was it so controversial?”
Curator Alice Kamps spent more than two years forming the collection and consulting historians for their opinions about which records warranted inclusion in the exhibit. During the Honor Flight tour of the exhibit, Kamps welcomed the veterans and was on hand to answer any questions they might have.
Divided into 12 “critical episodes” of the Vietnam War with titles like “Eisenhower Backs Diem,” “Johnson Sets the Stage,” “America Goes to War” and “Fighting While Talking,” the exhibit spans six presidencies, from Truman to Ford. Located in the Archives’ Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery, “Remembering Vietnam” provides a largely unemotional approach to the history of the war, with the exception a few heart-wrenching items—like an angry and heartfelt letter to President Lyndon Johnson from the mother of Corporal Russell Forest Keck, USMC, after her son was killed in 1967. A draft of President’s Johnson typed reply, displayed alongside the letter, shows the myriad of edits he made in pencil and is indicative of his struggle to find the right words to respond to a grieving mother.
There’s something to be said about the impact of viewing original documents that changed the course of American history, and also somewhat surreal to see papers on which former Presidents scrawled their thoughts or comments. In keeping with the essence of the National Archives, the exhibit is elaborate and well-designed but by no means ostentatious: rather, it acts as a medium by which the records of the United States can speak for themselves.
The 3,000 square-foot exhibit, which is enhanced by audio and video components, is a platform on which the records take center stage and tell the story of the Vietnam War, inviting visitors to examine the evidence and formulate their own conclusions about a conflict that remains marked by controversy more than 40 years after the end of the war. Supported by photographs and artifacts that provide context and background information, the documents are the true focal point.
Described by Archives officials as a “resource for refreshing our collective memory,” the exhibit’s chronology begins in 1946 during the presidency of Harry S. Truman, outlining his support of France during the French-Indochina War and the rise of Ho Chi Minh as president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
There’s a 1954 letter from President Dwight Eisenhower to Ngo Dinh Diem, president of the Republic of Vietnam, pledging America’s financial support in the fight against Communism; President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 notes from a meeting of the National Security Council; and the Senate tally sheet from its 1964 vote on the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, giving President Lyndon Johnson the authority to take “all necessary measures” against Northern Vietnamese aggression. All of these documents—among many others—help visitors gain a clear picture of what transpired on the Commander in Chief level during the war.
There’s a CIA model of the Hoa Lo Prison (also known as the “Hanoi Hilton”) along with a brick from the prison itself; items from the National Park Service collection of mementos left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall; baby shoes from the Saigon airlifts, and a CIA analysis of the Tet Offensive, outlining the “psychological victory” the attacks provided for the North Vietnamese. Visitors can view films of interviews and personal stories of individuals who experienced the war firsthand in a variety of roles. There are audio recordings, including one from President Eisenhower’s famous “Domino Theory” press conference in 1954, propaganda posters and many striking photographs—some of U.S. servicemembers, others of antiwar protests in the U.S., but largely, the photos depict the pivotal moments of the presidencies that defined and shaped the war.
Among the Honor Flight veterans at the opening day of “Remembering Vietnam” was Vernon Denman, who served as an infantryman with 1st Battalion, 3d Marine Regiment, in Quang Tri Province, Vietnam in 1969. Then a lance corporal, he had very little grasp, he said, of the historical background of America’s involvement in Vietnam or the political forces at work.
“When you were over there, you didn’t see the big picture,” said Denman. “Seeing this [exhibit] expands the picture I have of what was going on.”
In 1969, his focus wasn’t on what was happening in Washington; it was on jumping out of helicopters into firebases and on mere survival the night his “Rat Patrol” was hit by enemy fire on the road between Dong Ha and Quang Tri where he was wounded and the Marine in front of him was killed. Denman describes the war as a terrible experience—“a bloody mess”—and he said he continues to deal with the impacts that post-traumatic stress disorder has had on his life.
The most effective therapy for his PTSD, he said, is riding his motorcycle with the Patriot Guard Riders of Utah, a group that attends funeral services for fallen servicemembers to show respect and act as a non-violent “shield” against any interruptions or protests. They also escort veterans traveling to and from the airports on Honor Flights, and for years, Denman has been escorting Honor Flights for World War II and Korean War veterans. But this time, it was his turn to be honored.
“It’s affected his life so profoundly,” said Kristie Brown, Denman’s daughter, of the Vietnam War. “It changed everything for him. Hopefully this can bring him some peace.”
Ross Haycock was a Marine sergeant serving with a medical battalion in Vietnam from 1968 to 1969. As a motor vehicle operator, he transported the wounded and killed in action off the battlefield. For him, the opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C., on the Honor Flight and experience the exhibit—on the birthday of the Marine Corps, no less, —meant more than words could express.
“I can’t say enough about this … I can’t thank this program enough, what an opportunity,” said Haycock.
He described the feelings of “survivor’s guilt” he has dealt with for nearly 50 years, wondering why he returned home when so many of his brothers in arms did not.
“I have a lot of names to look up on the Wall,” Haycock said. After finishing their visit at the exhibit, there was a busy and emotional day ahead: a visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the World War II Memorial and other notable sites on the National Mall.
For the Honor Flight veterans in attendance, it seemed that what meant the most to them was not the records and artifacts on display, although they surely learned and benefitted from the exhibit. Rather, it was the fact that after so many years of pretending, in many ways, that the war in Vietnam never happened and ignoring the sacrifice that they and so many other Americans made there, their nation was finally giving their war the recognition it deserved.
“It healed them, finally,” said John Pierce, a board member with Utah Honor Flight who attended the opening. “They went in there with wounds and open sores and it finally healed them … I look at those guys—they left our country to go to another country that wasn’t theirs and to fight for their independence. When they came home, they didn’t have a country either so they’ve been in limbo. Finally for those guys to be recognized—all they wanted was the ‘welcome home,’ ” he added, expressing the gratitude that the veterans felt about being given such a life changing opportunity.
It’s moments like these that provide Pierce with affirmation that he is supporting the right organization. In addition to Pierce’s involvement as an Honor Flight board member, his employer, Nucor Steel, sponsors a flight each year.
Earl Morse, co-founder of Honor Flight and a retired Air Force captain, also delivered remarks to the Utah veterans at the Archives, telling the story of his own experience with the Vietnam War. He was 9 years old, living on Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho, when his father was serving in Da Nang. He would rush home from school every day, turn on the news and stare at the TV hoping to catch a glimpse of his dad. He relayed his vivid memories of the school principal calling classmates out of the room to deliver the bad news that their dad had been killed in Vietnam. The day his dad finally returned, he went with his family to greet him at the airport—and there, he noticed that many in the airport looked at his father with disgust. It was a moment that had a huge impact on his life.
After retiring from the Air Force, Morse, a physician assistant, was working at a Department of Veterans Affairs Clinic in Springfield, Ohio, in 2004, when the World War II Memorial was completed. He was determined to find a way to help his aging World War II veteran patients see their memorial, and using his resources as a private pilot, he began to personally fly them there, one by one, on his own dime. He soon recruited other private pilots to join in his efforts and donate their time and resources for an undeniably rewarding cause. In 2006, he partnered with Jeff Miller of North Carolina’s HonorAir organization to create the Honor Flight Network.
Today, Honor Flight operates 141 “hubs” in 45 states across the U.S., chartering commercial flights to transport veterans to Washington, D.C., through a partnership with Southwest Airlines. Veterans of World War II, the Korean War and, more recently, the Vietnam War can apply through their local hub and receive a priceless gift: an all-expense paid trip to visit their memorial, be recognized for their sacrifice and pay tribute to those who never returned home.
For many Vietnam veterans, whose war remains mired in controversy, this opportunity means the world, as does the opening of an exhibit that helps answer the questions, solve the mysteries and truly “remember” Vietnam.
“Many of those that served didn’t get the recognition for their service and valor that maybe happened in other wars,” said General Anthony C. Zinni, USMC (Ret), a veteran of the Vietnam War and member of the exhibit’s honorary committee. “I think with something like this, where they can actually physically see it and there’s a chance for people to understand what they went through, what the war was about, their courage, their commitment to their duty … it’s important that that recognition be there,” he added.
There’s a sort of collective healing that takes place at the nation’s war memorials—it’s what makes the Honor Flight Network so meaningful to veterans and their families. And an exhibit like “Remembering Vietnam” inspires the same sort of healing, while at the same time providing clarity about the intricacies of the war. This renewed sense of awareness will, at the very least, provide future generations with a deeper understanding of the sacrifice made by those who came before, and an appreciation for those whose “welcome home” came much later than it should